Venezuela’s leaders accused of under-reporting COVID-19

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It’s increasingly clear that Venezuela’s regime is using the pandemic to strengthen its hold on power, writes Stephania Taladrid for The New Yorker.

The New Yorker reports on COVID-19’s impact on Venezuela’s already devastated economy and its people.
In late February, Carolina González, a Venezuelan health-care worker, was summoned for a meeting near the Clinic Hospital, in northern Caracas. Doctors, nurses, residents, and union leaders crowded the room. One of the doctors spoke of a deadly virus that had originated in China and was spreading rapidly around the world. The doctor said that no cases of the coronavirus had been confirmed yet in Venezuela, but the country’s ties with China were close enough that workers needed to know that it would surely reach them and their families.

“Fear took hold of every one of us,” González recalled. Many people around her broke into tears. Others asked how a country where most hospitals lack running water, electricity, and soap could combat such an illness. González’s thoughts drifted away from the meeting room. She feared for her seventy-year-old mother, who suffers from hypertension; her three children, ages twenty-one, eighteen, and eleven; and her granddaughter, who has been in González’s charge since her daughter-in-law fled to Peru, in search of work.

With a joint income of $10 per month, González and her partner support the entire family. Sheltering in place was not an option for them, nor for millions in Venezuela, a country where the poor line up outside slaughterhouses to fill buckets with cow blood, the only protein they can afford.

González, whose name has been changed to protect her identity, lives with her family in Barrio Kennedy, a slum on the capital’s southwestern edge. Spread for miles over a hilltop, the community is blanketed by red-brick shanties and narrow streets. Like many of her neighbours, González, who is in her forties, knew that a national lockdown would be impossible to comply with. “We were told that the cure to the coronavirus was isolation,” she said. “But, in a country where there is no food, no water, no light, no nothing, how are you supposed to isolate?”

In mid-March, when President Nicolás Maduro ordered a lockdown, she and many other Venezuelans carried on with their normal lives. That meant going to the market every day to find whatever they could afford, if anything. Even if González had the means to buy food, she would have no way to store it for long periods of time. Power in Kennedy comes and goes.

The first time González and I spoke, she had gone twenty-two days without running water. When it finally returned, in the middle of the night, she woke her children to help her fill every container they had. “We spent hours filling tanks, plastic buckets, pitchers, pots, bottles,” she recalled. “We’d fill teaspoons if we could!”

Amid such deprivation, doctors are finding it difficult to raise awareness about COVID-19. Jaime Lorenzo, a surgeon from Caracas, told me that he has spent days in the city’s slums talking about how to contain the virus. “When you tell people that they need to wash their hands for at least forty seconds, they look at you as if you came from another world,” Lorenzo said. “An old lady recently told me, ‘Look, my son, I’d rather die from COVID than from hunger.’ And when someone speaks to you with such truths, there’s nothing else to be said.”

Until last week, the Maduro regime had recorded a suspiciously low case count – fewer than a thousand coronavirus infections and only 10 deaths in a nation of 29m. Some argue that Venezuela’s isolation from the rest of the world has helped contain the virus’s spread, but the country’s limited testing casts doubt on the official figures. All testing has been centralised in one laboratory, the National Institute of Hygiene, in Caracas, which can only process 600 tests per day.

Since the country’s first coronavirus cases were reported, on 13 March, the government has carefully guarded testing data. Julio Castro, an infectious-disease specialist at the Central University – Caracas, criticised the government’s lack of transparency. “They claim to be making hundreds of thousands of rapid tests, but no one knows how or where they are being conducted,” Castro, who also advises the opposition leader Juan Guaidó, said. “If you don’t have any information or data to monitor an epidemic, it will very likely go astray.”

It’s increasingly clear that Venezuela’s regime is using the pandemic to strengthen its hold on power. Earlier this month, the Academy of Physical, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences issued a report accusing the government of under-reporting infections. It warned of an estimated 1,000-4,000 per day, as early as June. Days later, Diosdado Cabello, the vice-president of Venezuela’s ruling party, dismissed the report and announced an investigation into the academy’s work.

Maduro’s nationwide lockdown has largely thwarted people’s ability to hold mass demonstrations. In a show of force, the military is enforcing quarantine measures and overseeing hospitals. More than a dozen health-care workers and journalists have been detained for speaking publicly about missing supplies or questioning the official infection count.

The country’s health-care system is in disarray after years of mismanagement and corruption. Shortages of medicine, supplies, and personal protective equipment are endemic. As of 28 May, six of the sixteen hospitals tracked by health-care unions in Caracas did not have face masks, five had no running water, and thirteen did not have soap. Not a single MRI machine in the capital is running. In the country’s forty largest hospitals, just more than two hundred ventilators and a hundred and sixty-three ICU beds are functioning. Doctors no longer speak of apagones, or blackouts, but of alumbrones – a reference to the rare occasion when the lights turn back on.

The majority of Venezuelan doctors have fled, and those who chose to stay say that they are woefully unprepared to deal with a pandemic. Lorenzo, the surgeon in Caracas, fears that the coronavirus is drawing attention away from combatting other diseases. A number of illnesses, including measles and diphtheria, have resurfaced in recent years. “We have malaria and tuberculosis pretty much all over the country, malnutrition is growing, and cancers go untreated,” he said.

The regime has not published periodic health statistics in years, and one of the few international organisations with knowledge of the situation is the World Health Organisation. Its local representative, Gerardo de Cosío, has publicly praised some of the measures adopted by the regime, and has also participated in meetings held by a government-appointed commission, treading carefully in his dealings with officials. “We have to earn their confidence in order to access that kind of information,” de Cosío told me. “And we try to keep a low profile to have an impact on the country’s health issues.”

Many of the Venezuelan doctors who have spent years denouncing the system’s deterioration take issue with the WHO’s approach. “It’s a problem when technicians assume a diplomatic role just to guarantee their presence in the country,” Lorenzo said. The fear is that the WHOs co-operation with Maduro may conjure a false sense of security, and allow officials to deflect attention from the dire conditions inside hospitals.

Nationwide, gas shortages make it increasingly difficult for medical workers and sick patients to reach hospitals. Although Venezuela has the world’s largest oil reserves, the government has no means to refine them, and it relies heavily on imports. Many gasoline stations in the country have closed, and those that remain open are tightly guarded by the military. Lines outside gas stations stretch for miles in Caracas and elsewhere, and people wait for hours, if not days, only to get five or ten gallons.

According to the government, doctors and nurses should be able to fill their tanks freely, but the health workers I spoke to said that they’re subject to the whims of whichever military officer is in command. González can no longer rely on the minibus she used to ride to get to the train every day. Instead, she has to walk several miles to her closest subway station, where trains are often too crowded to board.

Funeral homes also struggle to find gasoline for hearses. In some cases, families have been forced to transport the bodies of their loved ones in the backs of their own cars. Military officers are reportedly asking hearse drivers to show corpses as a condition for filling their tanks.

Inside hospitals, military officers are also asserting their authority. Some health workers said that they were directly involved in medical decisions. Others claimed that they were primarily there to spy on health-care workers. “Sometimes they pretend to be patients or dress as civilians,” Mauro Zambrano, a union representative of hospitals and clinics in Caracas, told me. “You see someone standing in a corner, looking around conspicuously, and you know it’s a military agent.” He added, “Infectious-disease wards typically have a very limited staff, three doctors and three nurses, and they’re terrified of telling the truth about what they see.”

According to the human-rights group Foro Penal, at least eighteen health-care workers and journalists have been detained for denouncing conditions inside hospitals or criticising the government. “One can’t contest the data publicly without being cast as a liar or risking persecution,” a doctor from the western state of Barinas, who asked not to be named, told me.

After Maduro declared a lockdown, on 16 March, Henrique Capriles, a leader of the opposition, called for a negotiation with the regime to address the needs of Venezuelans during the pandemic. “You know you can’t do this alone, that you need international help,” Capriles said. The IMF had just rejected the government’s request for $5bn of assistance, and Maduro offered to begin talks without Guaidó. Ultimately, the opposition and the government could not reach an agreement. Since Guaidó declared himself interim President, last year, he’s repeatedly insisted that Maduro step down and allow a transition to democracy in Venezuela.

The pandemic has also placed US sanctions in the spotlight. Since Trump took office, his administration has carried out a “maximum pressure” campaign of attrition, gradually broadening sanctions against Venezuela. Many have questioned the efficacy of the current sanctions regime, which Maduro has largely managed to evade with the aid of Iran, Russia, and China. He has also shown a bewildering capacity to adapt in the midst of mayhem and retain the support of key military and political leaders.

Full report in The New Yorker

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